FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
PETER RILEY: Late 1950s, bright schoolteachers introducing us to Eliot and Pound and encouraging exploration, which mostly took place in second-hand bookshops and
especially covered the British 1940s. Naturally you venture having a go yourself, and get
some encouragement from friends… I think the attraction of poetry lay in the possibility of an opening onto a world governed by the imagination, initially through rural contexts very different from the urban and industrial one in which I found myself, but also and
increasingly glimpsing the possibility of language striking truths of the human condition.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when
you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
PR: I’ve always been nervous of calling myself “poet” since it is something you do rather
than something you become. My way of writing has developed through a series of some
twenty books, generally in the quest for a wider concept of poetical substance, to get away from a standardised person-centred concept of the poem with its attached restrictions on linguistic usage, and to be able to greatly variegate the poem’s “content”, to leap unpredictably to distant matter (as anyone’s mind habitually does), to implicate politics and other large cultural questions while maintaining a lyrical surface which anchors the discourse to specific experience. Thus to steer away from an exclusively literary concept of the poem, being free to incorporate material from widely different sources, following my instincts towards historical and geographical material, the lyrics of folk songs or courtly airs, whatever appears in my path. In this quest I have sometimes deserved the epithet “modernist”.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
PR: It means that the work has a good chance of reaching further out into the world than it has had hitherto.
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
PR: The book Due North consists of one text (though not exactly one poem) in twelve
sections. It arose in the first place in anticipation of my move to the north of England (where I was born) in 2013, and from my awareness of my ancestry among the 19th Century displaced Irish in the early industrial north-west. This occasioned a great deal of thought, research, note-making and fragmentary passages of poetry concerning movements of populations and individual migrants in many directions and many places, all in search of a more tolerable living, so that displacement and quest became themes of the entire work. I set about the writing by stringing the material I had accumulated together into a collection of narrative episodes and fragments and increasingly included lyrical and ethical gestures towards a total condition. It begins by quoting a poem by A.E.Housman which asks the basic question about how we got here and what good we are doing here, and the rest of the book attempts to answer the question. It does mark a shift in direction insofar as, in spite of the dispersed textuality, it sets out to speak more directly, sometimes in quite dramatic terms, rather than by innuendo.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
PR: I prefer to think in terms of poems rather than poets. I was for a long time a bookseller specialising in poetry and am now a regular reviewer of new poetry. This means that an enormous amount of modern and contemporary poetry has passed before my eyes and has inevitably meant attachments to particular poets for all sorts of reasons. Most of these attachments come and go and sometimes return. I am as likely to be captivated by a few lines from an old song as by any poetical product. I think that the recent transgression I’ve noticed among young poets of the rigid boundaries we have inherited between so-called “innovative” and so-called “mainstream” is very encouraging. My own reputation has suffered a lot in the past from what I think of as these false categories. This week my favourite poets are Kelvin Corcoran, Steve Ely, Emily Critchley and Denise Riley.
FAF: What’s next for you as a poet?
PR: Get back home, consume a bottle of the local ale, contemplate uncertainly the
possibility of a continuation of Due North, continue work on an accumulation of
topographical poems concerning the area I now live in, not knowing what will actually come
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
PR: Beware of polemical currents which threaten to narrow the poem concept. Get an idea of what you believe in, what a poem by you could be and do at its best. Stick to it through thick and thin.